Subtle Flames Enhance Desserts

Liz Grossman

Be it the fire-and-ice combo of baked Alaska or the rum-fueled blaze of bananas Foster, often fiery desserts focus too much on the tableside flame. Not that there’s anything wrong with dessert and a show, it’s just that there are more subtle (and perhaps safer) ways to work the flavors of live fire onto the sweet side of the menu—namely, techniques that add char to balance sweetness.

Charring the fat

“Scientifically, we know what fire does, but emotionally, I think it makes desserts more approachable and familiar,” says Contigo pastry chef Kendall Melton, who tops her dessert biscuit with a pork fat marshmallow that gets torched in the kitchen of the Austin restaurant (recipe). “It offers a bit more excitement to guests, and it’s interactive, even if they aren’t [seeing] or doing the torching,” she says. The caramelized top is also the perfect complement to the marshmallow’s unexpected ingredient: pork fat. “When we opened, we were processing two pigs a day and had all of this extra fat,” she says. “We wanted to use it in as many ways as possible.” Melton was inspired by the patio-style dining at the restaurant to use the fat in a s’mores dessert. Starting with the idea of a housemade marshmallow, she decided to steep pork fat with vanilla beans on low heat, before slowly adding powdered sugar between cooling and whisking. 

“It’s an all-day process that involves whisking and stirring the sugar into the fat; letting it cool; adding more sugar; letting it cool, and doing that until the consistency is thick and the sugar is integrated,” she says of the method she learned by trial and error. “You aren’t diluting the pork fat. It melts, but it doesn’t disintegrate.” Melton whips the pork fat until it’s soft, but still stiff enough to hold up under the torch. “It has so much sugar that it torches easily without compromising the stability of the fat,” she notes. “It has crunch and consistency; you don’t just get a mouthful of soft, sweet pork fat.” Buckwheat flour in the biscuit and lemon-juice-tossed Texas blackberries provide nuttiness and acid to cut the sweetness and fat. “But I think the fire is the most fun part,” Melton says. “It makes it exciting rather than just a typical fly-out-the-door dessert.”

That’s where the baker’s skill comes in. If the coals are really perfect, we’ll just be able to pop the tarts in, rotate them a few times and pull them out, but if it’s a tricky fire, you have to be intuitive, you have to move your product around. You can’t just pop tarts in the oven, set a timer and come back.
Kelly Tamm, Leña Brava, Chicago

Heat your veggies

There’s nothing typical about Mettā, where vegetables from beets to candied parsnips get a turn in the live fire. Chef/Co-Owner Norberto Piattoni grew up watching whole animals cook over live fire in South America, and he honed his skills for the craft while working with Francis Mallmann in Argentina and Uruguay. With a plancha, fire basket and asador always fired up at his Brooklyn restaurant, Piattoni and his team are constantly tossing new things onto the coals. “Our fire basket is running from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.,” he says. “We’re always trying different techniques and using heat in different ways.” For a charred sweet potato dessert, he took a nod from the beloved Argentinian combo of chocolate and sweet potatoes, using the rescoldo method of burying vegetables in smoldering coals until charred and tender to cook the sweet potatoes. 

“Gauchos would traditionally leave camp in the morning after the fire had died,” explains Mettā chef Taylor Beacham, who collaborated on the dessert. “They would throw potatoes, beets, any hearty vegetable onto the remaining ashes and coals, and by the time they came back, the vegetables would be tender and cooked through.”

For the dessert, a sweet potato is partially cooked in an oven before it’s placed directly on glowing coals in the fire pit until charred and crispy. The blackened potato is sliced and served with a cream infused with elecampane (an herbal root) and topped with honey gastrique ($8, recipe). “Depending on the heat, we have to continuously check to see when they’re cooked all the way through. We want to get that crispy skin, but we also want to maintain the creaminess and sweetness of the potato,” Beacham says.

Finding that balance can be tricky. “It depends on how hot the coals are. It’s just a quick char—a few seconds—but it’s not the same every day,” Piattoni  says. “You have to keep your eye on it. It’s a sensitive thing; you have to be next to it.” 

Free-form baking

When Kelly Tamm joined Chicago’s Leña Brava as pastry chef, being next to the fire was part of the gig. “We don’t have gas, so all of our heat comes from live fire, either by wood or charcoal,” she says. “So when planning desserts, it’s about how we can use the fire to make what we want.” Tamm worked with live fire in other restaurants, but the security of a gas oven was never far away. “It was a really exciting idea at first, but then it was like, how are we going to do it? I don’t know how to man a fire! So we had to jump in and test things out,” she says. “For the first couple days, the fire was way too hot to bake anything. We had to wait for the oven to cool down so we could make our pastries. It was a lot of trial and error.” 

The hard work shows in the free-form seasonal wood-oven tart Tamm bakes in six-inch cast-iron pans. Before the tarts (or any of the desserts) can go into the oven, Tamm starts two small fires in the center of the oven, letting them burn until the heat transfers to the floor and disperses throughout the oven. “When it’s time to bake, we move the fires to the corners to keep the heat circulating,” says Tamm, who adds that she also has to consider any residual heat from the night before. “Depending on how hot they got the ovens, there’s heat left in the morning so that’s why we can’t write down any sort of formula for how long we let the oven preheat or how much wood we put in.” 

Once the oven is ready, the tarts are topped with turbinado sugar and placed in the center before they’re moved around according to the heat. “That’s where the baker’s skill comes in,” she says. “If the coals are perfect, we’ll just be able to pop the tarts in, rotate them a few times and pull them out. But if it’s a tricky fire—meaning there’s hot and cold spots in the oven that day—you have to be intuitive, you have to move your product around. You can’t just pop tarts in the oven, set a timer and come back.”

With as many as 10 tarts firing at once, each one is turned until it takes on varying shades of light to dark golden brown. The technique gives “a beautiful, rustic appeal, but also adding richness of the wood into the pastry,” says Tamm, who varies the fillings from blueberry in the summer to apple-cranberry in the fall. “You have to be careful when working with a wood-fired oven because you don’t want big flames—they’ll burn the outside of the pastry before the inside is baked—so what we’re looking for when we’re thinking about a good oven is nice, smoldering coals.” 

The blueberry tart is warmed in a charcoal oven at pick-up and then topped with a lavender-graham cracker crumble, Key lime ice cream and a drizzle of tequila-infused caramel for a balance of temperatures and textures ($15, recipe). The sharable tart, served with a steak knife and fork, is just one impressive dessert the team pulls off.

“It’s something we’re really proud to be able to master, and it’s something we almost forget to tell people, ‘Oh, by the way, we have no gas connection; everything you’re eating has been prepared over live fire!’” says Tamm. “In the beginning that was our main topic of conversation, but now it’s become so second nature, we forget how special it is.” 

Liz Grossman is the managing editor of Plate.

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